Crews' college coach on Nats' newest prospect

Dylan Crews will soon arrive at the Nationals’ spring training facility in West Palm Beach and start getting acclimated to his new organization. It will be a two-way street of him getting to know his new coaches and the coaches getting to know their new player.

Someone who already knows Crews well as a player and as a person is his college coach: LSU head coach Jay Johnson.

Johnson, who attended Crews’ introductory press conference on Saturday donning a purple sports coat, was beaming while talking about the second of his former players who went Nos. 1-2 overall in this year’s draft.

“I think it’s the combination (of) that's an elite player, that’s an elite person,” Johnson said of Crews to a group of gathered media members at the conclusion of the press conference. “I think if you stack up his three seasons of college performance, you’d be hard pressed to find anybody any better. But there’s this humility that he plays with, this edge that he plays with, this ability to lift everybody up and make everybody else around him better on top of these baseball tools that show up every single day to help his team win. I mean, it’s a truly special player. After not going number one, there was really no decision, probably, for Washington to select him.”

Johnson’s first head coaching job came in 2014 at the University of Nevada. After two seasons with the Wolfpack, he accepted the gig at the University of Arizona, where he coached for six seasons before leaving to become the head coach at LSU in 2021.

He was not shy in admitting Crews and right-hander Paul Skenes (the Pirates’ No. 1 selection) played a big role in him wanting to take the job with the Tigers.

“I’ve said this publicly, I came to LSU between his freshman and sophomore year, and he’s a large reason I accepted the job, knowing I was going to be able to coach him for two years,” Johnson said. “I just think that the evolution of, as he spoke about, of slowing the game down, of staying within himself, of controlling and managing the strike zone – really, at a major league level – you don’t see all of that show up. And then he made himself into a legitimate center fielder, defensive center fielder. Like I believe he’s a center fielder in the major leagues. The baserunning ability’s special, the arm strength and, again, it’s just the consistency. There’re players that have those tools. This is a player that those show up to help the team win every single day.”

Crews almost didn’t show up to Baton Rouge. Before his senior season in high school was cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 6-foot, 205-pounder was going to be one of the top prep players taking in the 2020 draft. But just before selection day, he decided to withdraw his name and honor his commitment to LSU.

“It was a tough decision,” Crews said. “I was an 18-year-old kid, who honestly didn't feel like he wasn't fully developed at that point. I felt like there was a lot of room that was still in my game that I needed to improve on. My gut told me to take myself out and experience that college life. And looking back, it was the best decision I've ever made. Taking myself out, it was a bet on myself, really. Like I said, looking back, best decision I've ever made. I couldn't be happier with where I am today. Couldn't thank coach Jay enough for this opportunity. Without him, nothing like this is possible. So yeah, super, super happy.”

Crews’ special ability showed up on the stat sheets. He hit .426 with 18 homers, 70 RBIs, a .567 on-base percentage and 1.280 OPS in 71 games this season while helping lead LSU to the College World Series championship and winning the Golden Spikes Award.

At one point, his coach thought he was going to hit .500 in the country’s toughest conference.

“He was at .500, I believe, on May 1,” Johnson said. “We talked before this season of, if you stay within yourself, if you don’t try to do too much, you might be able to hit .500. Then it’s May 2, we were playing Alabama, I look up on the scoreboard and he’s at .502. Remarkable. He handles elite pitching well, and I think that’s why he separated himself as the top hitter maybe not this Draft, in several years, because he can step in a box and handle Major League pitching right now in terms of controlling the strike zone, the bat speed, the combination of vision, recognition skills, managing the zone, hitting the ball hard on a line to all parts of the field – he’s great at all of it.”

Crews will enter the Nats system as one of the top prospects, joining the likes of James Wood, Brady House, Elijah Green and Robert Hassell III. That group will try to accomplish what former top prospects Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon did over a decade ago in helping this rebuilding team become competitive again.

“I think Mike's done it before,” Johnson said. “And I think something that I appreciate about the Nationals, and I just told this to him, is they always draft the best player. They don't get cute with trying to outsmart the draft and bonus pool. They always draft the best player, whether that was Harper, Strasburg, in this case, Dylan, Rendon. And they deserve a lot of credit for that.

“I said this about winning the College World Series: You can't win the College World Series anymore without future major leaguers on your team and old players. Well, you can't win the major league World Series without real cornerstone, multiple-All-Star-type players. That's how they did it the first time. And then they built around them really well. They go get Howie Kendrick and those guys. Well, Dylan's gonna be one of those cornerstone players, and then in a few years, they're going to be able to go get guys to put around him and probably put themselves right back in that same situation.”

Another former player of Johnson’s was drafted by the Nationals. Second baseman Gavin Dugas was a sixth-round selection, joining his best friend, Crews, in the same organization.

Although not as highly touted, Johnson says Dugas can develop into a solid major leaguer.

“Winner,” the coach said of Dugas. “He played second base for us this year. We moved him in from the outfield because we were very loaded, obviously, at that position group. He hit 17 or 18 home runs. Having that type of offensive second baseman Howie Kendrick style is a great benefit for any team. He plays the game hard. Again, just grinder type. Positional versatility obviously to play both corner outfield, he could play third. I'd be intrigued to see if he could catch. He has good soft hands. He's got a great throwing arm. And if you do that, you might be talking about a major leaguer, not just an organizational guy. But he will outperform a lot of high prospects in the organization just because he knows how to play. And there's good power in there, too. He could be a 20-25 home run guy in the major leagues. I really believe that.”

While Johnson is proud to see his top players get drafted and move on to the next level, he will always have this special season to look back on. Even though it may be hard, if not impossible, to ever replicate.

“Coming over here, leaving one great place to come to the place in college baseball, they have made this for me,” he said. “Because they're great players, great stats, All-SEC-type performers, but they made it about winning. And then not only did they play great, they just made sure everybody in our program was doing everything at the highest possible level. Between Dylan, Gavin and then Paul Skenes, you can't have better player leadership in a college program. Not just baseball. In a football, basketball program, there wasn't better player leadership anywhere in the country this year than in LSU baseball because of those three guys.”

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